Notes for Reclaiming Our History: The Soviet Union
Eugene E Ruyle
NOTE: These are my comments as prepared for the regular Sunday morning meeting of the Institute for the Critical Study of Society at the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library, Sunday, Nov 1, 2009. This was posted on Sunday morning, Nov 1, 2009, but may be updated within a few days. If you have comments, please email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank everyone for coming. Normally, people don’t even bother to pose the question, “Does the socialism of the twentieth century have anything to say to us in the twenty first century?”
Many believe the question of the nature of the Soviet Union to be a dead issue, not worth discussing because, whatever it was, it was bad, Such views represent, in my opinion, a fundamental misreading of the entire twentieth century. We cannot understand such phenomena as the New Deal and the anti-colonial struggle, much less the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cuban revolutions, without understanding the influence of the great October Revolution and the essentially socialist example of the Soviet Union.
The view that the Soviet Union was socialist does not necessarily mean that it represented a model for the future, much less a "workers paradise." Rather, the October Revolution represented a decisive break with global capitalism and initiated a world revolutionary process that dominated the entire twentieth century. Even after the defeat of 1991,the Soviet Union remains relevant to the twenty first century. The Soviet Union belonged to what Marx, in the Critique of the Gotha Program, called "the period of revolutionary transformation" that lies between capitalist and communist society, during which time "the state could be nothing other than the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat." As Lenin stressed, and as Soviet experience proves, this period of transformation "represents an entire historical epoch," which began in 1917 (or 1871, or 1848 . . . ) and will not end until the last capitalists have given up all hope of restoring their lost paradise, that is, not in our lifetime.
Some of my comrades call me a Stalinist, and I know they mean that in a good way, and I regard it as a compliment, but I have to say that although I have considerable respect for Stalin, I am not myself a Stalinist. Stalin was a man of steel, and I tend to be a little Wobbly at times. I could never do what Stalin had to do.
Mao’s view was that Stalin was 70% good and 30% bad, but this kind of quantitative evaluation misses the point. The question is, what class did Stalin represent? Capitalists or the workers?
As Kenneth Cameron pointed out, Stalin, more than any other single individual, is responsible for the defeat of Nazi imperialism and the preservation of socialist property relations in the Soviet Union. These tremendous historical achievements are definitely in the interests, not only of the Soviet working class, but the international proletariat and the human race in general.
This is why Stalin continues to be highly regarded in Russia, China, and in socialist nations generally.
And I will just leave it at that.
There are a variety of views about Soviet society, most of them negative in one way or more. Some see it as a form of State Capitalism with a “state bourgeoisie,” others as a deformed workers state ruled by a new bureaucratic caste, others as a form of bureaucratic collectivism, or “post-revolutionary society” (Paul Sweezy), and others as a stronger Oriental Despotism, a throwback to an ancient form of Asiatic Mode of Production (Wittfogel). Most bourgeois scholars see the Soviet Union as socialist, but they mean that in a bad way, and as proof that socialism can’t work.
I published my own view in 1974, arguing that the Soviet Union was a protosocialist state ruled by a predatory ruling class that had developed a postcapitalist mode of exploitation. In spite of saying all this, I STILL didn’t get tenure. So I decided, “to hell with it,” and began to re-examine entire question.
Each of the various views does provide certain insights into Soviet reality, but these tend to be one-sided. As Hegel says, “’the truth is the whole.” It is necessary to grasp Soviet reality as a whole, as something undergoing continual change and connected to the entire flow of world history. And we must do this empirically, based on facts and not simply our impressions.
Views of the Soviet Union tend to be ideologically or politically based, with supporting facts thrown in as necessary. There has been little attempt to evaluate the differing views critically, in terms of empirical reality. Two major exceptions are the work of Al Szymanski and Shirley Cereseto, both sociology professors in the 1980s.
Szymanski based his two books, Is the Red Flag Flying? (1979) and Human Rights in the Soviet Union (1982), on the published studies of Soviet sociologists and Western Sovietologists. Using this data, he attempted to evaluate the conflicting views of Soviet reality. Cereseto’s study, “Capitalism, Socialism, and Inequality" (1982), is based on World Bank statistics, which she assumed were not biased in favor of socialism. She used this data compare the quality of life in socialism and capitalism.
Based primarily on their work, (and supplemented by others such as Michael Parenti and William Mandel) I decided to lose the proto and refer to the Soviet Union as socialist, and that’s the view I want to offer today.
When I call the Soviet Union socialist this does not necessarily mean that it was a "workers paradise, " or a model for the future, or even that it had reached the first phase of communist society as described by Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Program. Rather, it was socialist in the sense that the Soviets were attempting to build socialism, the first such attempt in world history. The October Revolution represented a decisive break with global capitalism and initiated a world revolutionary process that dominated the entire twentieth century. The October Revolution enabled the Soviet people to dramatically improve the quality of their lives, not of course producing a socialist utopia, but the very best that could be expected under the circumstances.
Even after the defeat of 1991,the Soviet Union remains relevant to the twenty first century. The Soviet Union belonged to what Marx, in the Critique of the Gotha Program, called "the period of revolutionary transformation" that lies between capitalist and communist society, during which time "the state could be nothing other than the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat." As Lenin stressed, and as Soviet experience proves, this period of transformation "represents an entire historical epoch," which began in 1917 (or 1871, or 1848 . . . ) and will not end until the last capitalists have given up all hope of restoring their lost paradise, that is, not in our lifetime.
It is within this context that I want to examine the features of Soviet society. First, however, a little more on Marx’s views.
Marx did not give us a blueprint for socialism nor a timetable for getting there. He thought it would be a “mistake” to dwell on such issues because “The doctrinaire and necessarily fantastic anticipations of the programme of action for a revolution of the future only divert us from the struggle of the present.” Consequently, he regarded such speculations “in so far as they are not related to the immediate given conditions in this or that particular nation, as not merely useless but harmful.” (1881) Marx’s caution was valid in his time, before there were any real attempts to build socialism. After nearly a century of attempts to build socialism, however, we must do as Marx would have done and examine the question scientifically, that is, from the perspective of the materialist conception of history.
As Engels said at Marx’s graveside:
For Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs, conscious of the conditions of its emancipation.
Marx expressed a central feature of this conception in a letter to his friend Wedemeyer:
Now as for myself, I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was 1. to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; 2. that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3. that this dictatorship itself constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society. (Marx 1852)
In other words, the revolution does not give us socialism. The revolution leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the dictatorship of the proletariat leads to the abolition of all classes and to socialism. This may seem unpleasant, but it is what Marx said.
Marx understood that this would be a long and difficult process and criticized those who “substitute the catchword of revolution for revolutionary development”:
Whereas we say to the workers: ‘You will have to go through 15, 20, 50 years of civil wars and national struggles not only to bring about a change in society but also to change yourselves, and prepare yourselves for the exercise of political power’, you say on the contrary: ‘Either we seize power at once, or else we might as well just take to our beds.’
Marx was quite clear on why the dictatorship of the proletariat was necessary. In his comments on the Paris Commune he wrote about the “hideous face of the bourgeois civilization”:
The civilization and justice of bourgeois order comes out in its lurid light whenever the slaves and drudges of that order rise against their masters. Then this civilization and justice stand forth as undisguised savagery and lawless revenge. Each new crisis in the class struggle between the appropriator and the producer brings out this fact more glaringly. Even the atrocities of the bourgeois in June 1848 vanish before the infamy of 1871.
And even the “infamy of 1871” pales before aftermath of the Russian Revolution when the imperialist powers attempted to follow the advice of that great statesman, Winston Churchill, and “strangle the Bolshevik baby in its cradle." The Nazi invasion was even more ruthless and, as the Cuban missle crisis showed, the American bourgeoisie were quite willing to blow up the world rather than let the workers have it.
The primary purpose of the dictatorship of the proletariat is, in the words of Marx (1873), “to crush the resistance of the bourgeois class.” This necessarily involves violence. As Engels explains:
All Socialists are agreed that the political state, and with it political authority, will disappear as a result of the coming social revolution, that is, that public functions will lose their political character and will be transformed into the simple administrative functions of watching over the true interests of society. But the anti-authoritarians demand that the political state be abolished at one stroke, even before the social conditions that gave birth to it have been destroyed. They demand that the first act of the social revolution shall be the abolition of authority. Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough? (1872, On Authority)
Now, I agree, it is not a good thing to bluster about with revolutionary machismo and brag about how many capitalist eggs we’re going to break to make our socialist omelet. But we need clarity. No one advocates violence for its own sake, but no one can responsibly advocate a course of action without full consideration of the response of the bourgeoisie.
We also need to stress the global character of both capitalism and socialism. In 1848, Marx wrote:
The liberation of Europe, whether brought about by the struggle of the oppressed nationalities for their independence or by overthrowing feudal absolutism, depends therefore on the successful uprising of the French working class. Every social upheaval in France, however, is bound to be thwarted by the English bourgeoisie, by Great Britain’s industrial and commercial domination of the world. Every partial social reform in France or on the European continent as a whole, if designed to be lasting, is merely a pious wish. And only a world war can overthrow the old England, as only this can provide the Chartists, the party of the organised English workers, with the conditions for a successful rising against their gigantic oppressors.
— “The Revolutionary Movement,” 31 December 1848
As Marx noted in a letter to Engels on October 8, 1858:
The proper task of bourgeois society is the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and of the production based on that market. Since the world is round, the colonisation of California and Australia and the opening up of China and Japan would seem to have completed this process. For us, the difficult question is this: on the Continent revolution is imminent and will, moreover, instantly assume a socialist character. Will it not necessarily be crushed in this little corner of the earth, since the movement of bourgeois society is still, in the ascendant over a far greater area?
Clearly, as long as the bourgeoisie is still, “in the ascendant” in the United States, and retains its truly hideous military and economic weapons, the transition from capitalism to communism cannot be completed and socialism, even in the sense of Marx’s first phase of communist society, cannot emerge anywhere, no matter how much people try. The best anyone anywhere else on Earth can hope for is the dictatorship of the proletariat. That does not mean, however, that significant progress toward socialism cannot and should not be made within the framework of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Lenin put it well when he said,
The transition from capitalism to communism takes an entire historical epoch. Until this epoch is over, the exploiters inevitably cherish the hope of restoration, and this hope turns into attempts at restoration. After their first serious defeat, the overthrown exploiters—who had not expected their overthrow, never believed it possible, never conceded the thought of it—throw themselves with energy grown tenfold, with furious passion and hatred grown a hundredfold, into the battle for the recovery of the “paradise”, of which they were deprived, on behalf of their families, who had been leading such a sweet and easy life and whom now the “common herd” is condemning to ruin and destitution (or to “common” labour...). The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky.
The Soviet Union was a product of the great October Revolution, the third of three Russian Revolutions in the twentieth century. The 1905 Revolution failed to dislodge the Tsar, the February Revolution of 1917 did overthrow theTsar, but not the Tsarist social order and stopped short of establishing workers power. The October Revolution marks the first time in human history that the working class came to power with the leadership of a socialist party.
The revolution itself was fairly non-violent, but the aftermath, in the imperialist invasion and Civil War, was one of the bloodiest episodes in human history, up to that time. The Nazi invasion of the 1940s still claims that honor.
As the new Soviet government consolidated its power it effected the most rapid industrialization in history. The costs of industrialization were great, but the cost of not industrializing would have been far greater. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever seriously suggested that the Soviet Union would have been able to withstand the Nazi invasion without industrialization, central planning, and strict discipline.
This great transformation of Soviet society led to a higher standard of living for the Soviet people, with full employment , guaranteed pensions, and free health and educational benefits. Longevity increased, infant mortality was dramatically reduced, full rights for women guaranteed, and the general cultural level of the population dramatically improved. It is one thing to compare Soviet society with that of the world’s richest imperialist nation in America, it is quite another to compare it with the Soviet peoples under Tsarism, or with the descendants for the Ottoman Empire, or with people in the oppressed nations of the imperialist world order.
The world historical significance of the Soviet Revolution cannot be overstated. One simply cannot understand the twentieth century without considering the effects of the Soviet Union on such things as the New Deal, the emergence of the “Middle Way” in Sweden and elsewhere, the anti-colonial struggle, and, of course, the Chinese, Cuban, and Vietnamese Revolutions.
With this background, let us look at some of the more common misconceptions about the Soviet Union: the idea that the Soviet Union was ruled by a “new class”; the idea that the Soviet Union was imperialist; and democracy and political freedom in the Soviet Union.
As Marx stressed, the dictatorship of the proletariat “itself constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.” What was the Soviet experience in this regard?
Although everyone agrees that the old Tsarist nobility had indeed been abolished in the Soviet Union, most believe that a new exploiting class had emerged. The following quote from Paul Sweezy (1971) is, if anything, more moderate and balanced than most:
The facts indicate that (the Soviet Union is) a stratified society, with a deep chasm between the ruling stratum of political bureaucrats and economic managers on the one side and the mass of working people on the other, and an impressive spectrum of income and status differentials on both sides of the chasm. The society appears to be effectively depoliticized at all levels, hence a fortiori non-revolutionary. . . .
There is probably no capitalist country in the world today, with the possible exception of Japan, in which classical bourgeois mechanisms operate as efficiently to secure the kinds and amounts of work needed to propel the economy forward. (1971:81)
Sweezy goes on to assert that the “privileged position” of the ruling stratum “will be enhanced and strengthened for a long time to come.” Further, anyone who thinks otherwise “is either a dreamer or a believer in miracles” and “increasingly divorced from economic and social reality,” since these tendencies “can only be denied by blind apologists.” (p. 82) Besides, that Soviet reality “is a far cry from the Marxian view of the future . . . needs no demonstration.” (pp. 87-88)
Such terms, used freely by Sweezy and others, serve to inoculate their views from criticism, for who wants to be a “blind apologist” for a monstrosity such as the Evil Empire?
Even so, let us examine the question in greater detail for, quite simply, the empirical data do not support Sweezy’s contentions.
Clearly there were strata within the Soviet Union with differentials in income, power, and status. No one has said otherwise. “But,” as Marx said, “these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.” (Critique) Certainly they are equally inevitable during the phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat, while society is still in the throes of those “prolonged birth pangs.”
We do, however, need to understand that these inequalities are qualitatively different from the inequality in capitalism.
All income in the Soviet Union was based on work, in the form of wages, salary, or pensions, or benefits attached to particular positions within economic or political structures. The major sources of inequality in our own imperialist society had been eliminated. First, there was no property income of any significance, and no wealthy families such as the Rockefellers, DuPonts, Morgan, etc. Second, there was no unemployment, so another source of inequality had been eliminated. Third, the Soviet Union did not exploit the workers and peasants of other nations, so a third source of inequality within global capitalism had been eliminated.
Now, let’s look at the level of inequality within the Soviet system.
In the University of California system, for example, the differential between the salary of President Mark Yudof (at $828,000) and that of AFSME workers who recently went on strike against their poverty wages of as little as $9 per hour is something like 40 to 1, even more if we consider Cal’s football coach with a salary of $2.8 million.
In the Soviet Union in 1963, the statutory minimum wage for rural workers was $360, while a cabinet minister made $9,125, a differential of about 30 to 1. These figures do not include perquisites of office or bonuses, which would increase the differential. But they also do not include the free medical care and educational benefits in the Soviet Union, nor the fact that basic necessities such as food and housing are priced artificially low, while luxury items are price high.
In other words, the capitalist law of value does not operate in the Soviet Union. Instead wages and prices are set by a plan operating with broader social values.
Not only was income inequality less, quantitatively and qualitatively, in the Soviet Union than the U.S., inequality was decreasing:
while there has been no appreciable decrease in income inequality in the last generation in the U.S., ..., the Soviets have eliminated about half of the inequality in their income distribution (reducing the ratio of the highest decile's to the lowest decile's average wages from 8.1 to 4.1) - a radical reduction in inequality in a very short time. Such a reduction provides strong evidence against the Chinese claim that a 'new capitalist class' of either state bureaucrats or managers assumed control of the Soviet Union in the 1960s, since if this were the case they would have undoubtedly used their new power to increase, not decrease, their relative material advantage. p. 66
Such considerations are irrelevant for Sweezy, however:
it is usual to cite the narrowing of the gap in incomes between the collective-farm peasantry and the urban proletariat, the leveling-up of the lower end of wage and pensions sales, the shortening of the working day, and a general rise in living standards. These developments are supposed to be preparing the way for a transformation of the social consciousness and morality of the Soviet people. . . .What this argument overlooks is that living standards are not only a matter of quantity but also of quality. (p. 82)
Well, let’s take a look at quality. Clearly, guaranteed jobs, pensions, vacations, free medical care, and free education would have certainly improved the quality of life for Soviet workers. According to Nettl in 1967:
Recent investigations in the Soviet Union show that the level of job satisfaction among respondents to questionnaires is significantly higher than in other industrial countries - even though this may not be evidence of anything but a commitment to the notion that this is how it ought to be. The heavy pressure on writers and artists to conform to socialist realism may have been an ideological constraint on artistic self-development, but it ensured the provision of books, paintings and music which could be and were appreciated by broad masses and not merely by an intellectual elite. Reading and knowing the classics was accepted as evidence of being cultured; the range of foreign classics available in cheap Russian editions has never ceased to surprise visitors to the Soviet Union. Kultura in Soviet Russian carries the exactly opposite connotation to the German word Kultur; it signifies a generally accepted standard instead of a sign of elite differentiation. Though Stalin had definite ideas as to what constituted good reading and music, and did not, for instance, hesitate to express visible disapproval at public performances of what he considered to be cacophonous work by Shostakovich, the offering of classical ballet, theatre and concerts was always generous by any standard.
According to Sweezy,
The society appears to be effectively depoliticized at all levels, hence a fortiori non-revolutionary. In these circumstances the concerns and motivations of individuals and families are naturally focused on private affairs and in particular on individual careers and family consumption levels.
Again, the evidence does not support Sweezy’s negative appraisal. The data already discussed on declining inequality certainly suggests that the working class was in fact the ruling class in the Soviet Union. (If there were a “state bourgeoisie” that ruled, we would have to say that it behaved differently than any other ruling class in history, and thus constitutes a major theoretical challenge.) Let me note three areas in which the working class did exert power and controls on the Soviet polity: the Communist Party, elections, and the mass media.
Nearly everyone agrees that the Communist Party was the most important institution in the Soviet Union with a pervasive influence not only in politics and economics, but nearly every sphere of Soviet life and culture. The usual view, however, is that the Communist Party is an entity apart, standing above and ruling over Soviet society with minimal input from below. In short, it is the Party and not the working class that rules.
The material presented by Szymanski challenges this view and suggests a more nuanced and organic relationship between the Party and the working class. Clearly, the nature, composition, and function of the Party has changed from the pre-revolutionary days of the Bolsheviks, but the Communist Party remained a working class, socialist party throughout the period of Soviet power, and even after.
Szymanski points to a number of ways in which the Party is organically linked to the working class: conscious recruitment of workers, working class participation in internal Party democracy; working class support for the Party, and finally the working class values of Party ideology, Marxism-Leninism.
The membership of the Communist Party has fluctuated, with over 90% of membership drawn from workers and peasants in 1932, but this fell to less than half by 1956, when over half of Party members were drawn from white collar workers and others. Since then, recruitment of workers and peasants has increased so that 55% are from these groups.
In summary, there is substantial evidence that a considerable degree of internal party democracy exists, that the Party has considerable support in the working class, and that the two-thirds of its members who are ordinary working people play an active and influential role in party affairs. Nevertheless, it is almost certainly the case that the one-third of the Party who are professionals—teachers, engineers, technicians, managers, officials, scientists, economists, agronomists, etc.—do exert influence greatly out of proportion to their numbers, thus in considerable degree reducing the influence that the manual classes can exert on Soviet society through the Party.
There were elections in the Soviet Union, often unfavorably compared with elections in bourgeois society. The electoral system of the Soviet Union may not compare well with an idealized version of U.S. bourgeois democracy. Compared with the reality of U.S. politics, it looks pretty good.
As a single party state, only the Communist Party could nominate candidates in Soviet elections, and voters could only vote yes or no. This meant that the important political processes took place before the election, in selecting the candidate (similar, in some respects, to the U.S.). Intensive discussions within the Party and between the Party and other groups to ensure the candidate would win approval of the voters, who could reject the candidate. Although they rarely did so, it did happen. Probably more often than someone other than a Democrat or Republican is elected in the U.S. where voters can only select which representative of the ruling class will be elected, not reject both. Political process of selecting the candidate ensures that the successful candidate will have the financial support of the moneyed class, that’s why we call it bourgeois democracy.
It should be noted that since the Communist Party played such a significant role it selecting candidates for public office, it could ensure proportional representation of women and, in the non-Russian areas, ethnic minorities in elected bodies. Anti-Semites, racists, and ethnic chauvinists were not able to spread their demagoguery in the electoral system.
Szymanski, observes that little public debate occurs in the public meetings of the Supreme Soviet for these merely ratify decisions reached elsewhere. He notes that “the major forums for public debate, criticism, and public opinion formation are the mass media, together with specialized journals and conferences.” He continues:
The Soviet press is full of public debates on a very wide range of issues: literary policy, economic and legal reform, military strategy, the relation between the Party and the military, city planning, crime, pollution, farm problems, the role of the press, art, women's role in the economy, access to higher education, incompetent economic management, bungling bureaucrats, etc. The only issues that are (start p. 84) more or less immune from open, concerted criticism in the press, whether readers' commentaries or official editorials, are the Communist Party as an institution (as opposed to concrete abuses by party officials), the existence of the military (though not military strategy and the political role of the military), socialism as a system and communism as an ideal (though again not specific practices of the Communist Party), the idea of the unity of the Party and the people (but not flaws in its concrete manifestations), and the persons of the current top political leaders (but not lower and intermediate level officials, and not the ideas and programmes of the top leaders). All but the last of these taboo subjects represent the fundamental assumptions of Soviet society.8 These issues are considered to have been settled once and for all and public discussion of them is considered by the regime to be potentially disruptive of popular rule. Other than these few basic assumptions of Soviet society there appears to be no official policy that is immune from questioning and criticism in the press
The work of Szymanski, as well as others such as William Mandel, makes it clear that the quality of life, both physical and cultural, in the Soviet Union improved dramatically sine the time of Tsarism.
No discussion of the socialism of the twentieth century should ignore the findings of Shirley Cereseto
The Protosocialist Nations account for one third of the world's population and nearly 20% of world GNP. Conditions within the Protosocialist Nations vary. In the Warsaw Pact nations (the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialist nations) the average GNP per capita is $5480, the literacy rate is 99%, life expectancy is 72 years, and infant mortality 25 per thousand. In China, GNP per capita is only $300, the literacy rate is 69%, the life expectancy is 63 years, and infant mortality is 97 per thousand. In Cuba, GNP per capita is estimated at about $1000, literacy is 95%, life expectancy is 73 years, and infant mortality is 19 per thousand (World Bank 1983:148-201).
Whatever their faults, Protosocialist Nations have been the human needs of their members better than Underdeveloping Capitalist Nations or the capitalist system as a whole. Most Marxists "know" this, and may even be able to provide some statistics from a favorite Protosocialist Nation documenting it, but there has been surprisingly little effort to document this belief in any systematic way. A notable exception has been provided by the research of Shirley Cereseto (Cereseto 1982, Cereseto and Waitzkin 1986).
In her study of global inequality and basic human needs, Cereseto uses World Bank statistics (which may be assumed not to be biased in favor of capitalism) on income and the quality of life in both capitalist and socialist nations to test the two most important aspects of the Marxian paradigm: the law of capitalist accumulation, and the prediction of improvement following a socialist revolution. Her findings may be briefly summarized.
Cereseto finds that the increasing inequality that has characterized the entire career of civilization, has intensified since WWII, with increasing degradation, misery, and denial of the basic human needs of a large and growing portion of humanity.
Cereseto divides capitalist nations into three categories, based on GNP per capita: rich, middle income, and poor. She finds, not surprisingly, that the physical quality of life is better in rich nations than in poor nations.
What is significant is that socialism improves the physical quality of life and better meets the basic human needs of its members than does capitalism.
All socialist nations fall within the middle income category based on GNP per capita, even though many were desperately poor before their revolutions. Cereseto uses a variety of statistics on such things as inequality, infant mortality, life expectancy, literacy, and health care and finds that:
1. the socialist nations do far better in meeting these human needs than do capitalist nations with the same resource base (i.e. middle income capitalist nations), and
2. the socialist nations, all middle income, do better than the capitalist nations taken as a whole in meeting the basic human needs of their members;
3. socialist nations do about as well as rich capitalist nations in meeting basic human needs. Cereseto also finds that, while inequality is increasing both within and between capitalist nations, inequality is declining both within and between socialist nations.
Other data indicate that the increasing inequality within the imperialist world requires increasing repression for it support, so that state-sponsored terror and even torture have been increasing since WWII. While I don’t have specific statistics, I think it is clear that repression in the socialist world has decreased since Stalin’s time. This is acknowledged by commentators who argue that decreasing state repression simply means that the population has been more effectively brainwashed.
Cereseto's findings, then, confirm the central tenet of Marxism: socialist revolutions are in fact good for human beings. With their social ownership of the means of production, the Protosocialist Nations have been able to eliminate the mass poverty, starvation, and ignorance generated by the capitalist system and have begun to create more egalitarian societies.
Cereseto’s study clearly indicates that the world revolutionary process set in motion by the October Revolution not only benefits the workers and peasants of the Soviet Union but also dramatically improved the well being of working people which followed the Soviet example.
It may be added that the October Revolution contributed to the emergence of so-called “Middle Way” socialism in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe, nor the gains workers made during the New Deal in the U.S..
The aftermath of the overthrow of socialism in the Soviet Union is, by common consent, disastrous (see, for example, the documentation in Parenti 1997). The Russians ask the question, “What has five years of capitalism done that seventy years of Communism couldn’t do?” Answer: “It made socialism look good.”
But this raises the question, if the working class was the ruling class, why didn’t they resist and protect their gains..
I think it is important to acknowledge, first of all, that Soviet workers displayed almost superhuman courage and heroism in defending their revolution from the external enemy, in defeating the invasion of Nazi imperialism. But they were not prepared to deal with a counter-revolution from within, particularly the way things developed in 1991. No one could have predicted what happened. It was tragedy and farce all mixed up together and by the time people understood what was going on, it was too late.
The tragedy, of course, is what happened to Gorbachev, the architect of glasnost and perestroika that had the potential of raising Soviet society to a new level and gave humanity “hope we believed in,” as we thought at the time. But Gorbachev was fatally compromised by the general’s coup, by the coup-plotters as Daddy Bush called them, opening the way for the farce: Yeltsin, a real buffoon who came to hold the future of the Soviet Union in his hands.
When Yeltsin was elected President of the Russian Federation, he didn’t campaign for abolition of the Communist Party or the Soviet Union, nor for the free market and capitalism
Some more considerations:
first of all, we need to acknowledge that it was the Soviet leaders themselves, that old hide-bound bureaucracy of the Communist Party, who initiated the programs of glasnost and perestoika
historically, the Soviet working class displayed heroic courage in defending their Soviet Union from the external enemy and defeating the Nazi invasion, but they were not prepared to deal with a counter-revolution from within
as noted, the working class exerted powerful influence, but they did so through the Communist Party – when the instrumentality of their rule was compromised, the way was open for the coup which dissolved the Communist Party, Soviet power, restored capitalism
Unfortunately, this included weakening of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and allowed anti-working class and anti-socialist forces considerable freedom to operate
Also, such forces spread considerable ideological confusion about capitalism and socialism – Soviet people assumed they would always have guaranteed jobs, pensions, free health care, free education, and all the other benefits of Soviet society
and when you look at the actual overthrow of Soviet power, it was tragedy and farce all mixed up together – no one could have predicted it and by the time it was understood, it was too late
march 1991 referendum supporting Soviet Union passed with at least 70% majority
june 1991, Yeltsin elected President of Russian Federation, with 57% of vote, but did not campaign for free market and capitalism
august 1991, attempted coup by generals against Gorbachev, Yeltsin led opposition, gained strength while G was compromised
fall 1991, gradual takeover by Yelstin forces, Commuist Party banned in November
December 1991, Russian Fed takes over Soviet seat in UN, Gorbchev resigns, Soviet union ends
January 1992, Yeltsin begins “reforms” – resistance etc
October 1993, Yeltsin’s second coup: “The ten-day conflict had seen the deadliest street fighting in Moscow since October 1917. According to government estimates, 187 people were killed and 437 wounded, while sources close to Russian communists put the death toll at as high as 2,000.” wikipedia 1993 russian constitutional crisis
I do not agree with those who think China is a capitalist nation, nor with those who consider the government of China to be illegitimate. I see the Peoples Republic of China as the only force that can protect the Chinese people from the full onslaught of imperialism, and the Chinese can see what imperialism did to the Soviet Union and are not about to let that happen to them.
After one hundred years of imperialism
in 1949, after proclaiming the Peoples Republic of China, Mao said, “The Chinese people have stood up. No one is going to push us around any more.”
On the basis of the careful research of Szymanski, Cereseto, and others, I believe that the Soviet Union was an authentic dictatorship of the proletariat, that it dramatically improved the quality of life for the peoples of the Soviet Union, that it was engaged in the process of building socialism, and that it inspired millions of others around the world in the global struggle for socialism. But socialism is a global system that cannot emerge until the overthrow of world imperialism, and that, primarily, is the responsibility of the working classes in the imperialist nations. (namely, us)
The Yeltsin coup of 1991 and the resulting restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union constituted a defeat for the working class of world historic proportions. We are still trying to figure out what it means. We know, however, what it does not mean. It does not mean that revolutionary struggle is over, nor that such struggle is not worthwhile.
To understand this, we need to place the October Revolution and the Soviet Union in the broader framework of the world revolutionary process. When Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto, labor unions and working class political parties were still in their infancy. Consequently, workers really did go to the barricades, engage in street fighting, and “up the revolution.” This period, which we may call the period of the First International, ended with the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871.
But that defeat did not end the world revolutionary process. It continued with the rise of powerful labor unions and the socialist political parties of the Second International. This period ended with the Great War but the October Revolution ushered in a new phase in the world revolutionary process, the period of the Third, or Communist, International. The defeat of 1991 marked the end of this phase, but not the end of the world revolutionary process.
To borrow one of Marx’s metaphors, the red mole of revolution is still burrowing even though we don’t have the foggist idea of where she will emerge. We know that we must prepare our minds for the coming struggles of the twenty first century. In this process, it is essential of have an open, critical, and scientific approach to the attempts to build socialism in the twentieth century.
If it is indeed true—and I believe it is—that working people in the twentieth century were able to take power with the leadership of a communist party and effect dramatic improvements in the physical and social quality of their lives. If you will pardon a Biblical reference from Matthew 25, the communists were able to feed the hungry, house the poor, and heal the sick. This is something we can take proudly with us into our struggles in the twenty first century. And when people tell us socialism doesn’t work, we must reply that the evidence shows that it does.
Note: The works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin are all cited in the text and may be found on the Marx/Engels Internet Archive or Marxists.org.
Cameron, Kenneth Neill
1987 Stalin: Man of Contradiction. Toronto: NC Press Limited.
1982 Capitalism, Socialism, and Inequality. The Insurgent Sociologist 11(2):5-38.
Cereseto, Shirley, and Howard Waitzkin
1986a Capitalism, Socialism, and the Physical Quality of Life. International Journal of Health Services 16:643-658.
1986b Economic Development, Political-Economic system, and the Physical Quality of Life. American Journal of Public Health 76:661-666.
1966 Stalin: A Political Biography. New York: Oxford University Press.
Franklin, H. Bruce
1972 Introduction. In The Essential Stalin: Major Theoretical Writings, 1905-52. H.B. Franklin, ed. Garden City: Anchor Books.
Mandel, William M.
1967 Russia Re-Examined: The Land, the People and How They Live. New York: Hill and Wang.
1985 Soviet But Not Russian: The 'Other' Peoples of the Soviet Union. Palo Alto, CA: Ramparts Press.
1997 Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
Sweezy, Paul M.
1980 Post-Revolutionary Society. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Sweezy, Paul M., and Charles Bettelheim
1971 On the Transition to Socialism. New York: Monthly Review Press.
1979 Is the Red Flag Flying? The Political Economy of the Soviet Union Today. London: Zed Press.
1982 Post-Maoist Disillusionment: A Critique of Sweezy's State Bourgeoisie. Line of March 10:65-88.
1984 Human Rights in the Soviet Union. London: Zed Press.